CALM BEFORE THE STORM
INTRO – The PKRA World Tour has been criticised over recent seasons for making kiteboarding competition look boring to the average rider. This season they introduced some new rules rewarding style and precision over a gung-ho approach to just trying the most complicated looking trick possible. The result? An increase in the number of followers and one of the closest seasons ever seen in both the men's and women's events. Last year's men's World Champion, Youri Zoon, and twice runner-up, Alex Pastor, are locked level on points with just two rounds to go. Jim Gaunt caught a ride with Alex Pastor, a wily Spaniard desperately trying to prevent the record books showing him as pulling up short for three years on the trot.
WORDS – Jim Gaunt
CAPTION - Cape Town
PHOTO - Ydwer.com
Alex may have finished runner up on the PKRA World Tour for the last two years, but he says getting motivated for this year's championship was actually much easier.
“I really want it now. Three times as Vice World Champion will be really frustrating.” he explains as we drive the couple of hours to Barcelona airport from Golf de Roses where we'd both been for the Airush 2013 product conference. Alex has a meeting in the Catalan capital with a prestigious sports management company who have the likes of footballer Fernando Torres on their books. I have a flight home and he's giving me a lift.
Like his riding, Alex's driving is calm and controlled, although I notice that he keeps reaching in the wrong place for the button for the windows and the indicator on this Peugeot hire care. It seems to bug him a little bit. He's used to driving a brand new Mini Clubman when at home in Spain.
“They [Mini] ran a publicity campaign orientated around men's action sports this year, and they came searching for me.” he tells me proudly.
There aren't many riders that carry car manufacturers as sponsors (although Spanish riders do seem to do particularly well in terms of outside industry sponsorship) and Alex is obviously smart. His English is impeccable and he seems to be making his way in the business world too, having bought a new build property in Tarifa that he rents out while he's on tour most the year, and he's also set up a business with a friend, importing Airush and Ion products into Brazil. He smiles, but seems serious as he nods his head towards the car dealership we were passing, “I'd like to start importing Minis into Brazil really though!”
Although most kiters put an emphasis on size and space for their kite vehicles, the Clubman seems to suit Alex – it's fast, punchy, handles well and has more than enough space for his twin-tip and a couple of kites. A pro freestyler's dream? “What more does it need?”
Alex's approach to this year's World Championship has also been simple but effective. Since winning the last event of the 2011 season and becoming the first rider to claim the top podium spot riding in boots, his confidence has visibly improved.
Freestyle competition is so tight now that the rate of progression has slowed to become more about refinement and style than claiming ownership of the latest new move. This season we've seen boots become the preferred set up over straps for many PKRA riders and it's Alex whose win played a large part in getting that movement going. He has competed in nothing else since the New Caledonia event that closed 2011.
CAPTION - Airush Livewire team shoot, Cape Town
PHOTO - William Milne
He doesn't let on that his rise in confidence has come from the wide recognition at having proved such a big point in the sport, but instead, rather humbly puts it down to the circumstances he found himself in.
“For the first few years on tour it wasn't my goal to be number one, and when that's not your goal, you don't go at it 100%. But after finishing second twice, I committed to really go for it. I've trained differently, worked on consistency and repeated moves rather than just going for the best tricks.”
The PKRA of course made their own changes this year, bringing in new rules allowing riders to perform 12 tricks in a heat, with the best seven counting. The idea being to reward style and consistency, rather than attempts at the most difficult tricks with botched landings. Watching Alex ride for the last few days in Spain I'm amazed at just how faultless his technical riding has become. He performs with his kite so low, pops so hard and crisply and does his tricks so fast and powerfully, but the impression it gives on the beach has so much more impact as the style is so much cleaner than we've seen from PKRA riders mid-season in the past. The tour's new format is obviously working and Alex says he's really enjoying his training.
“Competition is like that. When you're winning you enjoy it more. The format is definitely more fun and I can see that more people are following it and that makes me happy. I get messages on Facebook and Twitter with people wishing me well. It's nice.”
PHOTO - Ydwer.com
A KGB 5 with a grab is the latest trick he's polished for competition. If you'd like to learn it, you'll probably be disheartened to know that it took Alex four years of being able to do a KGB 5 before he could add a grab. And before that he had to nail the back-to-blind and regular KGB, but good luck...
“I mean you could learn it quicker if you really focussed on the grab from the start, but I was just concentrating on getting my kite lower and lower.” he explains, conscious it sounded a long time for a Vice World Champion. “I got happy with how low my kite was, so I started going for the grab.”
The accuracy and technicality in Alex's wake-style riding is astonishing. He usually trains for two relatively short 45 minute sessions a day when conditions allow, because “when you're going for trick after trick you can get tired and perhaps injured.” But he also tells me how it's important to not give up and that such technical tricks really start to slow down in your mind the more you do them, no matter how fast they look.
“It happens exactly like that. It really does all slow down. When you first learn a trick there's no way you can think about making a grab. At first you're just concentrating on getting the bar, but it does all piece together in your mind.”
I begin to ask him about what it would mean if he manages to win the World Championship. As expected, he tightens up a bit, but comments quite dryly, “Celebrate, I guess. But let's not talk about that.” So I ask him what he thinks his strengths are over Youri going into the final two rounds; a route of questioning that's back on a subject the tactician in him is obviously more comfortable with, but his answer remains understated and calculated. “The only thing that I could have in my favour is that I have beaten him twice in the double elimination this season. I only lost to him in Morocco, so that could give me more motivation. Plus, this is the first year I've ever led the tour for a while.”
CAPTION - X-training
PHOTO - Ydwer.com
The PKRA has never visited China before and runs its first event there in the penultimate round this season, starting on the 13th November. The danger is of light winds, but he rates their chances as even. “I'm usually not very good in light winds, but Youri's not so good either.” Alex quickly corrects himself at the thought of undermining his biggest competitor. “I mean, he's always good, but they aren't his best conditions.” He pauses, there's the slightest hint of a grin as he twists his hands and they give a little squeak around the leather on top of the Peugeot's steering wheel and he confesses, “I've actually ordered a special 14.5 metre from Airush especially for that event. I've never done that before. My biggest is usually a 13, but Youri has a 14. I've gone for an extra half, so we'll see if that works.” He seems pleased by this, almost allowing himself to imagine how it will feel to win and lets out a little chuckle.
Alex doesn't party or let himself go as much as some other competitors and his smile isn't the kind that you feel in danger of being swallowed up by. But as you get to know his sense of humour and what makes him tick he's easy to warm to and spend time with. Often the most humble riders don't radiate as being the easiest guys to support because they're not singing about how good they are and barraging you with content on Facebook, although his video updates are well worth a look for their unfussy nature and are crammed with style. Wetsuit and no shorts you might also notice; Alex is all class on the water.
I've met Alex before but we found more common ground over South Park and football during the last few days. He's a passionate Malaga fan, who he enthusiastically tells me are currently in the top two when he finds out I like football, too. The Spanish league is dominated by two teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, so it's nice for a smaller team to find themselves challenging at the top. The parallels between Alex's situation and his home team are obvious, but Alex is a realist and doesn't get carried away with romanticising about what could be. Instead he appreciates the skills on show and the consequences of battle whenever Real and Barca play each other. In fact an 'El Classico' encounter is scheduled for this weekend and Alex seems a little worried about how he'll follow the match from Brazil, where he's heading tomorrow to train for a month.
CAPTION - Competing in Fuerteventura, where he won and took things level
PHOTO - Toby Bromwich / PKRA
I ask him if the upcoming final rounds of his own are on his mind. “It's on my mind all the time.” he says. “I'm relaxed right now, but the closer it gets the more nervous I'll get.” Alex's long term girlfriend lives in Brazil (Bruna Kajiya's younger sister for any gossip mongers out there interested in celebrity kiteboarding tittle-tattle) and he's obviously very comfortable out there. He went straight out there to train after the last PKRA event in Fuerteventura at the end of July and will be back again in December, as either World Champion or runner up for the third time.
I really hope it works out for Alex. He's shown strong character to have come back from two crushingly close defeats at the end of a season and is a shining example of a rider making freestyle competition kiteboarding look really professional.
As we near the airport he tells me that, although he can't stop thinking about the coming rounds, he feels good about his level. “I've still got another month now and I'll train as much as I can. I'm relaxed, I know what I'm doing and what I have to do.”
Pulling up to the turn-off for the airport, we see a sign saying that we're heading for a place called 'Prat'. We crack up in laughter and are reminded of Ruben Lenten. In spite of how we appear, at the end of the day, boys will be boys.